Jordan Henderson – A £20m Gamble?
The last few days have seen the sports pages filled with updates on Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones. Following on from the significant financial investments made in the likes of Andy Carroll and Darren Bent in recent months, two more young English footballers are set to make their moves for quite considerable amounts of money; however it is Henderson’s move we wish to look further at.
In short, a deal worth £20m for an as-yet unproven 20-year-old is a lot of money. Obviously, with time this might prove a fine piece of business, and there is a certain value to the thought that paying a few pennies extra to ensure his signature prior to the U21 European Championships in Denmark this summer (thus averting the possibility of any eye-catching performances causing interest from rivals and subsequent bidding wars etc.) could prove a smart move by Liverpool; after all, that has certainly been the case with Javier Hernández’s arrival at Manchester United prior to the World Cup last summer.
As it stands however, Henderson is certainly yet to prove himself. He has shown flashes of his talent, not least in the early parts of the 2010-11 season when Sunderland were flying high and manager Steve Bruce referred to him as ‘the brightest young prospect in the British game.’ His good form resulted in a call-up to the England squad for the youngster and a first cap against France last November, although he struggled to make an impact on the fixture and himself described the experience as ‘a little bit difficult.’
A tricky international debut certainly doesn’t mean the lad is without talent. His lung-busting displays in the middle of the park for the Black Cats have caught the eye, whilst those that saw his assist against Wigan last September will testify to his vision and crossing abilities – a perfectly-flighted first-time cross from the deep having skinned Mohamed Diamé near the half-way line. Furthermore, ten assists in the last two seasons – more than prodigious talents Gareth Bale and Jack Wilshere – suggest he might just have an eye for a key pass and the knack for executing it. This ‘Welcome to Liverpool’ video certainly suggests an air of optimism on behalf of the Liverpool fans…
However, as the Telegraph’s Rob Stewart notes, a meagre four goals in seventy-one Sunderland appearances ‘really is a poor scoring record for an attack-minded midfielder,’ and is the sort of statistic which will raise a few eyebrows in the Kop, especially when his price tag is considered. Such a large amount of money for such a relatively unproven footballer can only be considered a gamble.
Still, there are merits to the speculate to accumulate argument – Henderson will grow and improve further with time. He is still a youngster, only just about to turn 21, and has fantastic footballers such as Steven Gerrard to learn off at Anfield. Henderson himself is becoming somewhat of a model professional – he does not drink or smoke – and he offered a grounded response to England call-up, so the omens are good at least. But as for how good, only time will tell. For now though it remains an almighty gamble.
Henderson certainly fits with Kenny Dalglish’s attempts to build a Liverpool side around young, British talent however. Adding Henderson to the already purchased Andy Carroll, the likely-to-arrive Charlie Adam, the already in situ Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly, the (admittedly unsuccessful) attempts to sign Phil Jones and the courting of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, it is easy to see what Kenny prefers. Perhaps influence by the Premier League’s home-grown squad rules, it should see Liverpool in good stead for the coming seasons.
For now though, it is tough to see how Henderson fits in. Liverpool have for the most part looked like favouring a 4-4-2 under Dalglish with Andy Carroll and Luis Suárez up top, and either Maxi Rodríguez or (potentially) Young on the left. Although Henderson is versatile and can play on the right of midfield, the odds on him replacing Kuyt in that position are slim. That leaves just two central midfield births and a sizeable amount of competition, with Gerrard, Meireles, Lucas already in situ and Charlie Adam widely tipped to join soon. And that’s before you consider the other youngsters (Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing etc.) waiting in the wings at Anfield…
And here perhaps is the crux of the matter. It is not just that £20m is a lot of money for an unproven player (albeit with potential), nor is it just a matter of how or where he will fit in, but it is a case of is he even needed at Anfield as things stand? With Adam set to join, unless one of Gerrard/Meireles/Lucas moves, you would say he probably isn’t; something that appears especially so when one considers the rest of the squad.
Although undoubtedly a side in a transitional phase – compare the title challenging side from 2008-09 years ago (Mascherano, Alonso, Torres etc.) to the current one (Carroll, Suárez, Lucas, Meireles, etc) – there are deficiencies worthier of higher attention than adding Henderson and Adam to an already convoluted set of options in central midfield.
Centre-back Jamie Carragher will be well into his thirty-fifth year by the time next season concludes, full-back Glen Johnson increasingly looks like an accident waiting to happen, there is no left-back, and – if we are brutally honest – the left-midfield/wing conundrum has never satisfactorily been solved. Phil Jones, José Enrique, Charles N’Zogbia and Ashley Young would all nicely resolve these more pressing issues, yet Liverpool look like missing out on the majority of these viable options (Enrique is linked with Barcelona and Jones is off to United for £17m).
Furthermore, Young is expected to head to Old Trafford for around £16m – although Liverpool are believed to be challenging hard for a deal – and instead Liverpool appear to be setting their sights on £10m-Stewart Downing. Although comparatively both Villa wide-men have their own stronger points, most fans would willingly agree that having Young in your team ahead of Downing would be massively preferential.
Liverpool have struggled at left-midfield/wing over the last decade, and now appear to be compromising on their latest addition. If it is for Downing’s talented left-foot that Liverpool opts for him over Young then I challenge you with this: Charlie Adam’s superior left-foot appears on his way already, and in any case Young’s right-foot is at least an equal to Downing’s left. If it is for financial reasons that they opt for Downing, then the decision to pay £20m to add Henderson to the already congested central-midfield ranks should come under further scrutiny from those associated with Liverpool Football Club.
It is perhaps the case that the Anfield hierarchy should be diverting their financial and personal attentions from Henderson to Ashley Young, for signing the Villa winger – who is already established as a Premier League talent and now cementing his role in the England set-up – would add to the quality of Liverpool’s squad in a previously troublesome position, as opposed to merely reinforcing the already strong central-midfield ranks as they have done with Henderson. It is another story perhaps, but you feel the creative artistry of Young on the left-flank would complement the effective industry of Kuyt on the right (in much the same way that Park Ji-Sung’s work-rate has dovetailed perfectly with Ronaldo and Nani’s showmanship for United).
It might be unfair on Jordan Henderson that such a debate is occurring, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Liverpool have taken a sizeable gamble on a relatively unproven player in a position they already have depth, at a time when they have other positions requiring more immediate attention. As ever, time will tell, but Liverpool fans – and Henderson himself – will undoubtedly hope that this £20m signing proves to be a masterstroke, rather than a missed opportunity elsewhere…